James Vaughton went to meet Dave Foster, the founder of TEN in August 2019. He shares some of their conversation over a lunchtime meal of steak and chips.
The man opposite me sits quietly in an antique chair, his legs crossed, as he laughs and says to me, “Talking to you has brought back memories I had forgotten.” I smile, aware that as Dave Foster has enjoyed recalling old stories and has enriched my day with accounts of his travels into Communist Eastern Europe; tales of meeting figures in hiding and opening doors that would ignite Christian revival in unlikely places.
All organisations of a certain age have their heroes. This is especially true for charities who honour their founders and early pioneers. People who took risks, grew the work, faced adversity and overcame. They have normally long since retired from their organisation and their stories are enshrined in folklore. At TEN our founder was David Foster OBE.
I’d been driven down to Torquay, where Dave now lives with his wife Sue, by his brother Pete and sister-in-law, Dawn. The car turned into the car park of an inconspicuous set of modern, red brick flats tucked away near Torquay railway station.
We walk to the communal front door where Pete announces our arrival over the intercom, and I hear Dave saying he and Sue are on their way. I peer through the glass door seeing an image of Brunel, a British engineering hero who a revolutionised our railways in the 19th Century, as I wait to meet the man who, it is arguable, was part of another revolution over 50 years ago.
The door opens, I feel mildly nervous. A small man with a smile greets us and reaches out to shake my hand. He wears a blue shirt and jacket and looks younger than his 85 years.
Having exchanged plans, Dave leads me briskly to our restaurant, a short walk away, on Torquay’s seafront. We cross over the railway bridge at the station, out along the seafront, past a visiting funfair on our left and the sea on our right. People scurry past us enjoying ice-creams and summer sunshine. A Ferris wheel turns slowly in the distance. I wonder at this international jet-setter missionary who’s now retired in the surroundings of the English Riviera. The green man flashes at the crossing, Dave breaks into a jog across the road, leaving me to catch up. The lorry driver, held up by our late dash, doesn’t seem to mind. Perhaps like me he’s slightly surprised by the turn of pace put on by the older gentleman with me.
We arrive at our destination. The Beefeater Restaurant looks out across the bay to the English Channel. We are shown to our seat by a waitress with an East European accent. As drinks and food are ordered, Dave tells me how Eurovangelism began.
Working out of Youth for Christ’s UK office in Eastbourne,he travelled the length and breadth of the country, speaking at rallies and doing Gospel Chalk artistry. This was an idea imported from America. On a large stand with lights and rheostats, he would draw a Bible picture. Once completed, he would frame it before slowly changing the lights and ending with highlights picked out by a black light. Then he would preach on the theme he had drawn.
Dave moved to Geneva, Switzerland to establish a central European office for YFC, serving to coordinate the work of national offices and organise international events. He was to spend a year preparing the way for the newly appointed European Director Bill Yoder to take over. But once Bill Yoder had arrived, he asked Dave to stay for a while before returning to England. During that period, it became obvious that the job needed more than one person. Dave stayed on to work with Bill. He focused on southern Europe and Bill on the north.
Whilst working with Youth for Christ’s European office in Switzerland Dave started to wonder how they might develop the mission work in countries behind the Iron Curtain. He was told that there was a man in Yugoslavia that he might be able to connect with. Dr. Horak lived in Zagreb, and it was possible to get into Yugoslavia because visas were available on the border. He decided to go.
As advised by the person who had given him the contact details, he circled the building in which Dr Horak’s apartment was located several times to check he was not being followed. Entering the Horak’s home, Dave immediately noticed a picture of Billy Graham on the wall.
“That’s a nice change from all the pictures of President Tito I’ve seen all over town,” he remembered commenting. Dr. Horak replied, “I pray daily that Billy Graham will be able to come and share the Gospel with the people of my country, just as he has in the West.”
In July 1967, two years after that initial meeting Dave drove into Yugoslavia from Italy with Billy Graham. Dr. Jozip Hozak, who had prayed for so long, was now hosting the world’s most famous evangelical preacher. The meetings made headlines in newspapers in the States, where one read ‘Graham Calls Red Crusade A Success’. It was also a key to getting permission for future trips into Eastern Europe where people in packed stadiums heard Mr Graham preach. It was climaxed by a series of stadium meetings in Moscow itself and television programmes throughout Russia.
During this time, Dave wrote a weekly column in a publication called The Christian. In it he would write about his various travels, including Eastern Europe. One day he received a call from the editor, “Dave, people keeping sending in money in response to your latest article.” By this time, he had established Eurovangelism as a charity, so it was able to receive funds to provide support for the work across Eastern Europe.
I’m listening and eating. The steak is good. Dave is talking. His steak is going cold. I feel a little guilty. Dave doesn’t seem to mind. Occasionally he pauses trying to pull a name from the depths of his vast mental archive. As he remembers the name, he repeats almost to himself but out loud, “Oh, he’s gone to be with the Lord.” This is a refrain that he will utter six or seven times during our meal about various past colleagues.
In 1968 the Soviet Union sent its troops into Czechoslovakia to crack down on reformists. Dave recalls wanting to ensure his key contact, Milos Solc, was okay. Going to Geneva airport, he found just one last flight of Czech Airlines returning to Prague. On the flight he was the only passenger. I comment that the service must have been good!
Over Dave’s shoulder, I notice the sun is glistening on the water around the boats moored in the bay. Thinking as Dave recounts this story, I ask him how his wife Sue felt about him going into a war zone. For a moment, I imagine the response of my wife, Annie if I had told her that today I was off to visit a friend in a country being invaded.
Dave said, “Sue was supportive. At one point, I was going into Czechoslovakia almost every month.” That didn’t include his travels to other countries, and I wondered about the impact of all this travel on his family. I began to see how important Sue is in this story.
He tells me about how, on one visit, he and Milos had a meeting with Soviet soldiers. Milos had invited them to a church service, but they replied, “We can’t attend while we’re invading your country!” Then the pastor offered to meet them at a secret location. So it was, that following the church service Milos drove up a country road and took Dave into a nearby wood. There they met the group of about twenty Russian soldiers. Dave shared the gospel with them, and Milos translated into Russian. Then one of the soldiers asked where Dave and Milos had discovered about this God of the universe.
“One moment,” said Milos, and he disappeared to where he had left the car. Opening the boot, he brought out a large package and rushed back with it into the wood where Dave had remained with the soldiers. Opening the package, Milos revealed Bibles in Russian! Dave asked Milos to open one of the Bibles to John 3:16, and then he asked one of the soldiers to read it. The soldier looked amazed at the Russian text and exclaimed, “God speaks my language!” Every soldier was given a Bible.
Later, when these Russians had returned home, Milos received a letter from the family of one of them thanking him for the gift he had given their relative. Without mentioning what it was, they wrote, “The whole family has enjoyed it.”
I’ve met well-known Christians before, some older than me and some younger, and often find them slightly intimidating, over-confident and desperate to encourage me in my faith in a well-meant but slightly patronising way. I note that with Dave there is none of that. He is very unassuming and gentle. He must have been a great networker and bold, but it seems that his tenacity was aimed at opening the way for others.
Dave first met Cliff Richard during a film-making session. Knowing that Cliff had made public that he was a Christian, Dave asked him if he had ever thought about doing gospel concerts. I try to imagine the meeting, with Dave making suggestions about a new career move for one of the UK’s most famous singers! But Cliff followed through on the suggestion, which resulted in many Gospel concerts being held across western Europe, resulting in large amounts of money being raised for Christian projects in eastern Europe. More concerts were sponsored in Britain through Tearfund raising funds in support of its world-wide projects. The founder of Tearfund, the Reverend George Hoffman put substantial funds into strategic projects of Eurovangelism across Eastern Europe. On occasions George travelled to these areas with Dave to see how the money was being spent.
Dave recalled his part in the very beginning of Tearfund. He happened to walk into George Hoffman’s small office at the London headquarters of the Evangelical Alliance. George told him he was working on a fund-raising plan to provide overseas aid for the needy. It was to be called the Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund. George was working on an introductory brochure, the cover of which said EAR FUND which, they both agreed, looked like a fund for providing hearing aids! So, they decided to put ‘The’ in front, with a capital T to make it a part of the title. Thus, The Evangelical Alliance Relief fund or TEARFUND was born.
Looking at Dave, eating steak, chips and peas in Torquay, it is strange to imagine that this man was responsible for seeing so many who had never heard the Christian message come to faith and plant churches in a part of the world that would not officially allow religious freedom until the end of the 1980s. I ask Dave if he and Eurovanglism were responsible for the gospel going into Eastern Europe. He deflects any hint I may be flattering him, “There were six of us from various parts of Western Europe who would get together each year, all involved in different ministries.” One member of the group was Brother Andrew (God’s Smuggler). As at various points during our conversation, I find myself wanting to be in that gathering; at the time just a meeting of kindred spirits but looking back these were moments that shaped history.
Dave finishes his now cold steak and we leave the restaurant to head back to his flat. I realise that the stories I have heard and facts I have learnt have reinforced my growing opinion of my guest. Dave is not someone trying to build or even preserve a persona, but someone who puts those he is with at ease.
For me, as I settle into the role of CEO at TEN, the time with Dave has helped me understand a little more of our DNA. TEN is not a well-known mission agency. We don’t place a badge on our partners’ work. We don’t send missionaries, but fan others’ callings into flame. We seek to encourage and equip others to fulfil the vision to which God has called them in their own countries and encourage UK churches to develop partnerships with those in Europe. I see now, that is what Dave started because that is who he is, someone who enabled others. Dave handed over leadership of Eurovangelism, as it was then, to Gary Cox in 1992. He retired later in the decade, choosing to step away rather remaining a presence in the background. He allowed the organisation to move forward as Eastern Europe opened up and the Gospel spread. It was as if he knew his work was done.
Thank you to Dave Foster who helped me edit this article and add some details he had not mentioned when we met.